“The distance between me and my readers is the internet” -- An interview with Bob Mayer
How can indie authors use eBooks to their full advantage, creatively exploiting their potential to be adapted over time and linked to an author’s whole output?
Bob Mayer is a New York Times Bestselling Author who is not afraid to explore the incredible new opportunities available to authors. With 60 books published - both traditionally published and indie-published - Bob has sold over four million books. He and is also a leadership speaker and consultant, coaching authors on many aspects of writing and publishing. He is also CEO of Cool Gus Publishing and his latest book Time Patrol has just come out. On top of all that, he is the only West Point Graduate and Former Green Beret we’ve ever had the pleasure of interviewing! We talk about his work as a hybrid author, his marketing techniques, and Italian book covers…
It’s really great to be interviewing Bob this afternoon - a New York Times bestselling author, writing coach, who also writes a lot about publishing and self-publishing. Firstly Bob, it’d be great to start with your writing course Write on the River, how is it going?
I’ve been doing writing workshops for a number of years - I used to hold small intimate workshops and various bed and breakfasts. After my wife and I moved to the Tennessee River, we got a nice big house, so a couple of times a year we bring four writers into the weekend, working with them on their books. The weekend after this I’ve got four people coming down.
So you work with them on all sorts of things, structure and character development, that type of thing?
I change it for every group because every group is a little different. I’ve had number one New York Times bestsellers here - usually it’s published authors with some experience, but occasionally I’ve had a new author. We usually spend a lot of time on the ‘idea and conflict lock’ and a lot of time talking about the business, because so many things are up in flux right now.
Many authors - even established authors - are wondering right now, “should I become a hybrid author?”, “should I keep traditionally publishing?”, “should I self-publish?” One of our authors came down here for the weekend and she’s publishing with Cool Gus, so she’s become a hybrid author.
You are a hybrid author who has published a number of different ways, could you tell us a bit more about that?
I was published in New York for 42 books - Random House, St Martins - many big houses. Then I went self-publishing as I had a huge backlist to which I owned the rights and formed my own publishing company Cool Gus.
I knew from the very beginning what I wanted was to sign with 47 North, Amazon’s Science Fiction imprint. The main reason I did that was because of their marketing capabilities. They have tremendous power to market you on their site. So I’ve got a book we’re going to publish May 5th. I’ve got a book coming back from 47 North that’s due out in August, so I alternate writing science-fiction for amazon and thrillers for my own company.
What is it specifically about their marketing that interested you?
They have reach: they call it ‘merchandising’. They really know who the readers are and have huge databases. They know everyone who has bought one of their previous books and send them an email. They also do pricing - in the UK they have a ‘book for a pound’ - they pick a number of titles and promote those. There is a huge difference sales-wise when you use any of these platforms - whether Amazon, Apple or Audible ACX - they give you some ‘merchandising’ and your sales can skyrocket.
Yes, we’ve found with many authors that email lists are really helpful, because you are talking to an engaged audience, and that it’s worth slowly building them up
Yes, we don’t send many newsletters out because we feel many people are bombarded by them, but we are focusing on building our list this year. The other thing we have is a private Facebook group called ‘The A-team’: we’ve got about 30 people in there. These are people who really like my books. It’s a small intimate group where we chat about what I’m writing. If you can get a core of about 40-50 readers who talk about you and promote you, that’s huge. The book - Time Patrol (Area 51: The Nightstalkers Book 4) - just came out yesterday and I’ve already got a handful of reviews, mainly because of those types of people.
I like the idea of nurturing a small but dedicated small fan group. They are the one’s you can have a personal connection to.
The most important thing is readers. I’ve got a huge Twitter following, but I don’t really think it sells books; I don’t think a huge Facebook following sells books - although these things aren’t bad of course. The distance between me and my readers is the internet. I can communicate with them and respond to every email I get or every mention on Twitter. I think that’s key.
There’s lot of resistance in the publishing industry to change - I think that’s because so much of it doesn’t change: it’s always going to be about great content and writing. But, of course, things are changing: are there any new developments that are interesting to you?
Subscription is big. A lot of people are complaining about Kindle Unlimited for sales dropping, but Kindle Unlimited occurred at the same time as the content flood hit the eBook market - there’s just so much content out there and that’s not going away.
We don’t fight those things. Yesterday we got a cheque from Draft2Digital and the Scribd subscription service. We use those things; we use Kindle Unlimited. I broke one of my non-fiction books into 15 shorts, dedicated totally to Kindle Unlimited. I think writers waste a lot of time tilting at windmills they can’t change. They need to look at the publishing landscape and use everything out there to the best of their abilities.
Yes, and I think they could anticipate change a lot more than they actually do.
Ha! Yea, although I don’t think anyone could tell you where we’re going to be a year from now. It does always come back to good content though. The good thing is that I think if you write a good book, that’s a big part of it and then you do have to get out there and reach the readers. The readers have to know the book exists.
You’ve said in the past that this is the moment in publishing you are most excited to be a part of because the author has control.
Absolutely! What I’m doing right now didn’t exist ten years ago. Ten years ago I would hold the right to 50 books and be able to do absolutely nothing with them. I wouldn’t be able to sell them to anybody - I couldn’t get them in the bookstore. Now, they are in virtual bookstores, I can sell them to readers. One of our saying is “If you haven’t read it, it’s not backlist”. I was reading my first book from 1991 and I realised to someone reading it now, it’s a brand new book.
One of the interesting things right now is how publishing is relating to other media. People talk about how it is conflicting of complementing other media - cable TV, movies, games, etc - but do you think also that a lot of writers could learn about how they market these media?
I see writers say “go kill your TV”, but my wife and I watch a lot of TV and the writing is fantastic. Marketing-wise, if you look at what Netflix did with the Kevin Spacey show, where they released it all on the same day, I think that’s something to think about.
People want instant gratification now. It used to be that in traditional publishing, I have to give a book a year, but I had to write under three pen names because they would not allow me to publish more than a book a year. Now, you cannot publish fast enough, or write fast enough to keep up with demand from readers!
Yes, maybe you could experiment publishing lots at once, gaining a core reader group, then change your strategy, slow down or create anticipation.
Yes one thing we’re doing is we’re putting out a book every three months this year and what I’m doing personally is I’m racking my books together. I just had a book come out yesterday that loops back to my early Atlantic series, so what I’m doing is connecting the dots over 25 years of books.
At the end of the book, I say “if you want to know more about this character, go to this series”, “if you want to know more about this world, go to this series”. I think that gives readers more options to go through the back story.
Now your books are always out there - they don’t grow old, so you can create these links in ways which weren’t previously possible.
One thing I often talk about in my business is that an eBook is not like a print book: it’s very, very different. It’s organic. It’s changing. We have so many titles that when we bring out a new one, we have to go into the back and change all the links in it, we have to change the metadata.
Yesterday my new book came out and is called Time Patrol and I asked my business partner, “by the way, do these books have another subgenre on Amazon of ‘time travel’, because this is actually another best seller list!” and she’d already taken care of that. So it’s just constant change, and I think it’s caught traditional publishers a little by surprise, because they are used to the ‘fire and forget’ method. They published a book and it’s out there, it’s never going to change. An eBook changes constantly. I’m not talking the content - although you can do that - I’m talking all the things around it: the cover the endman, the metadata, so it’s a constant churning of things.
Have you experimented with changing covers?
Oh yea! We’ve changed covers. Actually, you often have to change covers, like on Amazon, where there are certain promotional things you can’t get into if you have things like a gun on the cover. I totally understand, because people complain, but you have to change the image and remove the gun, simply to get in these marketing programs!
I think it’s endlessly fascinating how in different countries, different covers just work and different ones just don’t work. I think you can learn a lot about individual countries by the book covers they like!
I was in a book store in Italy where it was always a scantily-clad woman on the cover with an atomic blast in the background and there was no woman in a bikini in the book! They just stick it there because that’s what sells.
So much of indie publishing seems to require a certain kind of author: entrepreneurial and someone who can effectively manage their own business. Do you think that may change? Do you think it could incorporate other types of writers who are perhaps not entrepreneurial, but who still want control and the best of indie-publishing?
Well, that’s a little what we do at Cool Gus. A handful of authors we work with just want to write, yet they want the freedom, so we take care of all the things for them, but we give them final say. So they don’t have to get caught up in the actual doing of it, but we’ll say, “What do you want on your cover?” - and they get the final say on that, cover copy, everything! So I think that’s a different business model.
And so that they have a team to help them
Yes, I think it’s really hard to do it all well. There are people that do it, but it’s much easier to send someone an email and say “Please take care of this”.
Where do you think agents may fit in the future?
I think agents are evolving. Kristen Nelson who works with Hugh Howey is an example of an agent that’s really changed the way she looks at things. And I actually think traditional publishing is not going to die: it’s evolving and they are learning, changing and adapting. I’m querying agents right now because I need help with foreign rights. I can’t really travel to the London Book Fair, for example, so I need an agent to take care of those things for me.
I think the reason publishing is so interesting is because it is a very complex industry and there are so many different things to be doing. What are you thinking about experimenting with in the next couple of years?
It’s more about the creative part. I’ve been doing it so long, that what I realise is that I can produce better books faster and the market is there for it. I have so many series going, and at the same time I put a few experimental things out there. And I don’t have to sit there and worry, will my agent like it, will my editor like it, will my publisher like it, will the sales force think they can sell it? All I’ve got to care about is ‘will the readers like it?’ I don’t think that’s going to change: that I like. I can directly reach my readers and either they can hit that buy button or not, and that tells me if it’s working or not.
That’s a really great message to send to our readers. Thanks so much for your time Bob!
Do you think too many authors waste time fighting things they can’t change? Where do you see agents fitting in in the future? Leave us your thoughts, or any question you have for Bob, in the comments below!